This past Thursday, Segun Olusola, the Nigerian playwright, actor and pioneer television producer died. He was 77. Despite that the average life expectancy in Nigeria is a mere 47 years, I still received the news of his death with great difficulty, and this is not just because he was a fine, most gracious human being. Often called the "culture patriarch" in the Lagos arts circles, Olusola represented an age that has become something of a myth: those heady, thrilling years before and after Nigeria's independence in 1960. I had met him on several occasions during the 1990s when the Lagos-based Committee for Relevant Art to which I belonged organized the (still-going) quarterly "Art Stampede" -- a unique event that mixed live music, dramatic skits, jokes, with serious debates on contemporary art and culture; a program in which everyone who was worth anything in the Lagos arts and culture world participated at one point or other. But it was years later, while conducting research on modern art in the independence decade that I spent time with him at his Ajibulu-Moniya Gallery, Lagos. It was from him that I learned so much about the amazing faith young artists, writers, dramatists, and critics had about their role in shaping the future of the new nation.
Olusola, a co-founder of the theatre group "Players of the Dawn" in the late 1950s, had the greatest impact as a producer at the Western Nigeria Television, the first TV station on the African continent during the early 60s (although most Nigerians remember him today as the producer of the wildly successful Village Headmaster TV drama that ran from 1968 to 1987. I too grew up on this stuff!). In collaboration with men like the legendary Ulli Beier and Wole Soyinka the Nobel Laureate, Olusola ensured that some of the most ambitious theatrical productions of the period were broadcast on TV. Beier once told me how, on commission from Olusola, he helped Duro Ladipo, perhaps Nigeria's greatest modern dramatist, to translate his usually script-less, proliferating, yet dense operas, into compact television productions. Besides, Olusola commissioned a few made-for-TV plays from Ladipo.
As a member of the Mbari Artists and Writers Club, Olusola ensured that art exhibitions there were well covered on TV. For instance the inaugural art exhibition at Mbari in July 1961, a joint exhibition by Uche Okeke and Demas Nwoko, was given a 30-minute feature on WNTV, setting the artists on the path to national fame. Such was Olusola's investment in contemporary art. That age is long gone now, and the major players are marching on, as the nation for which they toiled in their youth now feels like a dream deferred.
This poem below I wrote in tribute:
The Rider (for Segun Olusola, 1935-2012)
He caught God's tide
by its prickly tail
and scaled Ogun's walls
and the rivers of Osun
when the earth was new
Ah, the deep-voiced sage
has gone to the market
he has gone to buy
for his many children
the promise of tomorrow